The idea of an immortal soul which lives on after death is part of many people’s understanding of christianity. But it probably isn’t true. Here’s a short study of the Bible’s teachings on souls.
From the Concordance and Lexicons.
The best starting point is checking out what words are used in the Bible in the original languages, and what they mean.
- The word translated soul in the New Testament is the Greek psyche – no other word is translated soul as far as I can tell. The base meaning of psyche is breath, coming from psycho meaning to breath. That much is clear, but then it gets complicated and less clear.
- From that base meaning the Greek lexicons give a number of uses or meanings – spirit, soul, sentience, life force, breath of life, etc, but soul is the most common.
- Psyche is said to be the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew nephesh (= a breathing creature) from naphash (= to breathe). The word soul in the English Old Testament is almost always a translation of the Hebrew nephesh, but nephesh is translated many different ways, including life (this sometimes includes animal life), Nevertheless soul is the commonest translation.
- The use of nephesh in Genesis is very interesting. In several places nephesh is used to describe an animal (often translated as creature) but is also used in 2:7 in the phrase “the man became a living being/soul”, not “man was given a soul”.
There are other associated Greek and Hebrew words:
- The Hebrew ruach (= breath, wind) and the corresponding Greek pneuma (= wind, breath, spirit), are usually translated as spirit (e.g. Holy Spirit).
- The Hebrew chay (= alive) and the corresponding Greek zoe (life, vitality), are usually translated as life (e.g. eternal life).
The differences are not always easy to see but nephesh/psyche generally has the meaning of living thing, ruach/pneuma is the breath or spirit and chay/zoe is life itself.
What the experts say.
1. Bakers Evangelical Dictionary at BibleStudyTools.com says:
“Clearly, then, in the Old Testament a mortal is a living soul rather than having a soul. Instead of splitting a person into two or three parts, Hebrew thought sees a unified being, but one that is profoundly complex, a psychophysical being.”
It goes on to say the NT usage is similar, but more varied, and the word occurs less often. It can indicate a person, or a life, or stand in contrast with either body or spirit.
2. The Holman Bible Dictionary at StudyLight.org says:
“In the New Testament, the term psyche retreats behind the ideas of body, flesh, spirit to characterize human existence. In the Bible, a person is a unity. Body and soul or spirit are not opposite terms, but rather terms which supplement one another to describe aspects of the inseparable whole person. Such a holistic image of a person is maintained also in the New Testament even over against the Greek culture which, since Plato, sharply separated body and soul with an analytic exactness and which saw the soul as the valuable, immortal, undying part of human beings.”
3. NT Wright, an eminent christian scholar says:
“Paul’s, and the gospels’, usage [of psyche] is far closer to the Hebrew nephesh, which is the living, breathing creature: God breathed into human nostrils his own breath, the breath of life, nishmath hayyim, and the human became a living creature, nephesh hayyah (Genesis 2.7). …. Psyche here simply means ‘creature’, or perhaps even (in modern English) ‘person’. There are several other references indicating the same thing (e.g. 1 Thess 2.8; Phil 1.27; 2.30; Rom 2.9; 11.3; 13.1; 16.4; 2 Cor. 1.23.). All refer to the ordinary human life.”
“Further, there is never a hint of the psyche being immortal in and of itself. 1 Timothy 6 again, this time v. 16: God alone possesses immortality.”
4. Finally Wikipedia says:
“The concept of an immaterial soul separate from and surviving the body is common today but was not found in ancient Hebrew beliefs. The word never means an immortal soul or an incorporeal part of the human being that can survive death of the body as the spirit of dead.”
It seems clear, from both the Old and New Testaments, that we don’t have souls, we are in fact souls. And of course we are not immortal. We quite definitely don’t have immortal souls.
- We are mortal (“made of dust”). Without God’s intervention, we would return to the ground and that would be the end. But by God’s grace we have the christian hope of the resurrection of the body (see for example, 1 Corinthians 15:12-57, and the Apostles Creed).
- The idea of a soul as separate from the body and able to live on after the body has died, appears to come from Greek thought (specifically Plato and his followers), not from the Bible or Jewish thought.
- When Jesus talks about God destroying body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28), he is talking about the destruction of physical bodies and the life or self that is contained within them. I believe he means what he says, that we are not immortal, and those who refuse God’s grace forfeit eternal life (see Hell – what does the Bible say?).
- This more biblical view of soul meaning a living person removes some of the difficulties christians have faced of trying to determine when the soul enters the body at birth and leave sit at death. These questions are no longer applicable.